Early Christian Theology: Jesus, Gnosis, and Logos

With the Hellenic philosophic tradition and culture firmly planted in the Mediterranean in the last few centuries BCE and the first century CE, we see a drastic shift in theological and philosophical thought as sages, mystics and philosophers alike try to make sense of the larger than life figure and story that comes to be associated with Jesus of Nazareth.  In the first few centuries after his death we have several different streams of thought that crop up as a reaction to, and in order to try and interpret, his life and teachings within the context of prevailing theological, religious and philosophical views.  Although it’s not easy to box these different streams of thought into just a few categories – each school or sect had their own unique take and interpretation – it is convenient for the purposes of our discussion to draw the line between three categories of schools of thought, all of which took different approaches in integrating and interpreting the life and teachings of Christ into their own respective belief systems and teachings – namely Gnosticism and Christianity, both of which view Jesus as a great prophet and savior but who differed significantly on how he fit into the rest of the cosmological order and how to fit him into the Jewish tradition which preceded him, and then on the Greek philosophical front Neo-Platonism which takes the torch from the rest of the Greek philosophical schools after Christianity takes root and although doesn’t recognize Jesus as a prophet or savior in any way, still evolves parallel to Christianity and influences Christianity’s theological development to a large extent.

All of these streams of theo-philosophical development show marked Hellenic philosophical influence and the surviving works from these traditions were almost entirely transcribed in Greek, speaking to the continuous and altogether “Greek” intellectual tradition to which they are undoubtedly an integral part.  In the case of the Christian and Gnostic traditions specifically, as the evolved in the first few centuries after Jesus is crucified, they look to establish the credibility and truth of Christ and place him within the prevailing theology of the time.  The early Christian theologians and apologists leveraged the Hebrew tradition and the lineage of Moses for this purpose of course[1], while the Gnostics looked to a more esoteric and mystical bent regarding the interpretation of Jesus as the manifestation of the divine and through which knowledge and truth in and of themselves could be “seen”, borrowing in many respects the most esoteric and mystical elements of the Hellenic philosophical tradition, much of which was to be found in the Platonic school.  While the Gnostics influenced early Christian theology, remnants of which can be found in the Gospel of John for example, its tenets were ultimately rejected by the Church.

In parallel to these “Christian” theo-philosophical schools, to use a more broad sense of the term and one which includes the early Christian doctrines and streams of thought that were eventually regarded as heresy by the Church as it is established and refined in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries CE, we have a renaissance of sorts of Platonic thought that is classically referred to as “Neo-Platonism”, a philosophical tradition which more or less viewed the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, as well as the Hellenic philosophical tradition more broadly, to reflect a cohesive whole rather than as competing, or contradictory, schools of thought.

The Neo-Platonists supposedly relied on the unwritten teachings of Plato as the basis for this more inclusive philosophic view.  These teachings, as the tradition holds, were orally transmitted from Plato himself directly to his students and followers, and to some extent at least conveyed subtly different views and beliefs that diverged from the standard, public (and written) teachings of Plato as reflected in his dialogues that were widely disseminated in antiquity.  The Neo-Platonic tradition very much evolved alongside of, and was influenced by, early Christianity, representing the last ditch effort as it were to defend the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition from the onslaught and spread of orthodox monotheism, as manifest first with Christianity of course and then morphing into its Arabic cousin Islam.  The tradition also incorporated some of the ancient threads of mysticism and esotericism into their teachings and practices as well.

Neo-Platonism as a theo-philosophical tradition is perhaps best known in the end not only for their mystical bent, but also for their doctrine of universal emanation from the One, or the Good, a metaphysical principle which plays a large part in the creation narrative of Plato’s Timaeus, the metaphysical equivalent of the form of forms that manifests itself in the world via the Divine Intellect, or Nous, roughly equivalent to the role played by Plato’s Demiurge which is the anthropomorphic principle that produces the “World Soul” in the Timaeus.

The theo-philosophical Logos for example, was not in any way a Christian invention, the principle having a long history in the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition going back to not just Philo Judaeus, but even as far back into the classical Hellenic philosophical period with the Stoics, where Logos was not only an important theological, metaphysical and cosmological ordering principle, but a basic and fundamental characteristic of philosophy in and of itself as a rational discipline.  This fundamentally Hellenic theo-philosophical principle then, i.e. Logos, morphs into this concept of the Divine Intellect in the Neo-Platonic theo-philosophical tradition, i.e. Nous, providing the metaphysical bridge, and basic (animated or spiritual) universal ordering principle, between the Creator, the Demiurge or God, and his creation – the Platonic World Soul which roughly corresponds to the Christian Holy Spirit.

It is fairly well established that these ideas, Hellenic philosophy in general and in particular Neo-Platonic thought, heavily influenced not only Christian theology, but also its underlying metaphysics as well.  In fact many scholars believe, and there is certainly is a strong case to be made given the intellectual, metaphysical and theological similarities, that the notion of the Trinity – as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of course – was not so much a unique contribution of the early Christians so much as a borrowed and refurbished fundamentally Hellenic, Neo-Platonic  theological and metaphysical construct. [2]

The most influential of the “Neo-Platonists” were Plotinus (204 – 270 CE), his student Porphyry (234 – 305 CE), and perhaps most prominently Proclus (412 – 485 CE).  While Neo-Platonism as a school of thought was not necessarily “anti-Christian”, it was branded “pagan” by the Church, and after Plotinus the center of gravity for what we consider “Greek” philosophy shifted eastward to the Arab world, subsequently picked up after the advent and proliferation of Islam by the so-called falṣafa, the name adopted by the Muslim philosophers that, in Arabic translation, also looked upon the Hellenic philosophical tradition as more of an integral whole rather than competing schools.[3]

 

Although it’s easy to criticize the standard orthodox interpretation and canonization of the early Christian Church Fathers, when looking at the extant schools and teachings and books that were prevalent in the first few centuries after Christ one can certainly see why the Gnostic doctrines, with their emphasis on direct knowledge and realization, i.e. gnosis or “knowledge” (from the Greek verb “to know”), represented a threat of sorts to what eventually became the more orthodox interpretation of Christianity which focused on the saving grace of Christ and the more literal interpretation as it were of the “Word” of God.  This tradition emphasized not only his crucifixion and resurrection as not just proof of the immortality of the Soul but also as the sole means by which individuals could be “saved”.

As part of this theological stance which developed in the first few centuries after the death of Christ, the Gnostic and other “pagan” philosophical schools and traditions were rejected and a specific set of texts and books which reflected this belief system around Christ the savior of mankind were ultimately established into what today is the canonical version of the Bible.  This text of course includes the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses along with other selected Old Testament books, along with the selected New Testament books of which the Four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – represent the heart.  Parallel to the creation of the “Christian Canon” as it were, a standard interpretation of these texts, i.e. Christian orthodox theology, developed and was established as well, all evolving alongside the establishment and flourishing of the Church itself.  The doctrine espoused by the early Church, as all of the pagan centers of worship and schools were effectively banned, persecuted and outlawed (ironically just as the early Christian schools were) centered around the doctrine of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and their union in concept – what was established as the principle of homoousios or hypostasis by the early Christian Church Fathers which denotes the unity of the Trinity in substance or persona.

The Christian orthodox view on the interpretation of Christ and his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit, the three pillars of orthodox Christian faith, was first established in the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE), which set out among other things to establish the Church’s position on the precise theological relationship between God the Father and his Son, Christ and the Holy Spirit, the three different aspects of the Trinity which were different aspects of the one true God.  In so doing, these early Christian theologians not only established the orthodox Christian canon, but also outlined quite specifically the accepted theological boundaries of the orthodox Christian faith, establishing in no uncertain terms which pre-existing “Christian” schools of thought and doctrines were to be considered heretical which of course included the Gnostic schools among others.

The Nicene Creed of 325 convened due in no small measure to what modern historians refer to as the “Arian controversy”, which was plaguing and dividing the early Church at the time and was concerned about how the three main spiritual aspects of God – again God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – were to be interpreted within the context of the monotheistic theology which was of course also a hallmark of early Christian thought.  The question was essentially how were God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit – all main themes and aspects of divinity that were spoken of quite clearly not just in the Gospels but permeated the rest of the core Christian books, were to be viewed in relationship to each other.  Were they one and the same substance?  Just different names of the same things?  Different aspects of the same principal?  Or were they fundamentally different aspects of different ontological significance?

Although this may seem like splitting hairs to the present day scholar or student of religion, or to someone who is interested in the development of early Christianity simply from an academic perspective, to the authorities of the then nascent and early forming Church, these were absolutely critical issues to its survival.  If they could not agree on how to interpret the message of Christ, could not agree on which texts should be considered orthodox and standard and which were not, the very survival of the Church was in jeopardy.  They needed not just a single set of works and books that were to be used and disseminated by the Church, but also a consistent – and coherent – message and interpretation of the texts which centered around Jesus of course in order to consolidate and establish the authority and power of the Church as the proprietor as it were of the message of Christ and the means by which “Christians” were to be saved.  These motivating factors of the early Church must be kept in mind when looking at the history of the development of the early canon of the Bible and its associated theology, the Nicene Creed being a perfect example of this.

Despite hundreds of years of philosophical thought that preceded the rise of Christianity, and even with several centuries of interpretation of Jewish philosophy within the light of prevailing Greek philosophical views, i.e. the so-called Wisdom tradition which did have a clear role and place for prophets and sages, there existed no theological framework for the existence of a man who was theologically equivalent to God, calling into question mortality in and of itself and the “oneness” or unity of God which had been clearly established metaphysically for some time in the Greek philosophic tradition.  The metaphysical framework simply did not exist, and arguably one of the biggest challenges of the early Church was to figure out how to bridge this gap theologically while still holding true to the Greek philosophical movement which had become widely accepted as the intellectual benchmark for any theological system.

The Nicene Creed itself which was established in 325 was enhanced and modified somewhat in the First Council of Constantinople in 381, and in this credo we have the precise form of the doctrine of the Trinity which survives down to Christian liturgy even to this day and essentially defines orthodox Christianity.  Although there are different variants, as they all exist in English translation since the creeds themselves were defined in Greek, Latin and Armenian, we have the English version below that was adopted by the Episcopal Church in 1973 and which retains all of the main, salient features of the creed as it was established some 1700 years ago:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.  He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.[4]

That’s it in a nutshell, the Christian faith and doctrine as it stands even to this day.  And one can see why it was necessary for the early Christian Church Fathers, or at least why they felt compelled, to establish and outline the creed of Christianity so explicitly – they wanted to stop the fractions in the early Christian Church which were threatening to dissipate and at worst destabilize the early Church itself, one that had taken centuries to establish and had done so at the threat of death and persecution by most of the early Christians, many of whom had been ostracized and even killed for professing their faith.

Leaving aside the semantic debate as to the words chosen for the Creed as it become established and the underlying theological debates which were to a large extent put to bed so to speak with the establishment of the Creed, what is worth considering and looking at the non-standard early Christian traditions, which fall loosely under the umbrella as Gnosticism, as well as what characters and teachers played a role in the shaping of the standard orthodox interpretation of Christ which ended up being encapsulated in this Creed which forms the theological foundation for Christianity even to this day.

Because although we gain consensus in the Christian theological family by adoption of the Creed, we do lose a sense of individual expression, of the notion of direct perception and knowledge of the divine – i.e. gnosis – which rested at the heart of the Gnostic traditions which were prominent in the first few centuries after Jesus died, and which stemmed in no small measure from the Greek mystery cults which still remained somewhat popular throughout the Mediterranean until they were first persecuted during the latter part of the reign of Constantine the Great (Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 CE) and then outlawed explicitly during the reign Constantine’s son Constantius II (Roman Emperor from 337 to 361).  Nothing is gained without something being lost and that is certainly the case in the consolidation of the theological creed of orthodox early Christianity, a theological movement which rose on the backs of the persecution of its brethren and competing theological traditions, many of whom had lineages that went back deep into antiquity.

 

Let’s start our review of how orthodox Christianity came about, which in turn drove the formation of this Creed which defines the Christian orthodox theological position for the most part, by looking at the development of some of the early Christian Church Fathers[5], and by doing so we can see what the competing schools and interpretations of the life and times of the great prophet Jesus of Nazareth looked like and why the various schools disagreed on the points they did, and what forces drove the consolidation of the belief systems into orthodox Christianity and in turn the suppression and altogether destruction of the competing outlooks and philosophic disciplines and schools.

The main figures of this early (orthodox) Christianity are Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 CE), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – 215 CE), his student Origen also of Alexandria (Origen of Alexandria)  (c. 185 – 254 CE) and then of course St. Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) whose most important works City of God and Confessions have come to be regarded as some of the standard classic literature of (Western) Christian doctrine.  The teachings of these great early Christian theologians and believers can be contrasted with the various “Gnostic” sects which were also very popular at the time, most notably the school started by Valentinus (c. 100 – 160 CE) who studied in Alexandria but started his school and teaching in Rome toward the latter part of his life, the Christian Gnostic Basilides who taught and flourished in the first half of the second century CE also in Alexandria, and even the sect of Manichaeism founded by Mani (216-276 CE) which was a main rival to Christianity to the East and synthesized elements of Jewish Christianity, along with Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and even to some extent the Near Eastern mystical sect of Mithraism.

What we do know about the first few centuries after Christ was killed by the Romans (the Jewish authorities in Palestine of course playing no small part in the process) was that the overall flavor and theme from a philosophical and theological perspective was one of great diversity and synthesis, an enlightenment era of philosophy and mysticism as it were, with much of the intellectual innovation occurring not surprisingly in Alexandria in Egypt which at the time was the center of learning, scholarship and tolerance in antiquity certainly through the first few centuries CE until paganism and alternative Christian theological interpretations (Gnosticism) becomes outlawed and outright persecuted into extinction.

While it doesn’t necessarily reflect the true diversity and depth of the various schools of thought which took root during this time of theological and philosophical flourishing, a simplifying categorization of the schools of belief that were prevalent during this era – leaving aside Manichaeism which can be viewed as falling outside these three (simplifying) categories – could be broken out as follows:

  • Orthodox Christianity: resting on the Four Canonical Gospels(Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) and the writings and letters of the Apostle Paul (aka St. Paul), who although not one of the 12 disciples of Jesus was certainly the most influential in spreading his message after his passing and most certainly the most influential to the development of orthodox Christianity.
  • The Gnostic tradition which was a synthesis of not only Jewish Wisdom literature and its unique sophia/Isis view of Old Testament exegesis but also the incorporation of some the predominant astronomical and cosmological Greek philosophical themes (most notably the incorporation of the notion of the seven celestial spheres and the synthesis of both sophia and Christ within this cosmological framework)
  • Neo-Platonism which continued the Platonic (and Peripatetic) philosophical tradition but at the time had incorporated Stoic elements as well also began to evolve in parallel to orthodox Christianity in its adoption of the Trinity which of course bears striking resemblance to the Neo-Platonic triad of the One, the Intellect and the Soul which is manifest in the teachings of Plotinus and Proclus most clearly.

The New Testament canon as we know it today, consisting of the Four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, letters of the Apostles and Revelation was formalized in the Second Council in Trullo, also known as the Quinisext or “Fifth-Sixth” Council, in 692 CE during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian II.  The Council was held in Constantinople with some 300 Bishops from both the Eastern and Western Roman/Byzantine Empire with the intent of establishing a more consistent approach not only in the interpretation of the Bible itself, but also in the practices and teachings of all of the Churches throughout the empire, with the intent of crafting a more consistent message and to (re) establish the orthodox Biblical, i.e. New Testament, canon.

The heart of the New Testament canon is of course the Gospels, so named because they relay the good news (from the old English “god-spell” meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”) of the coming of the messiah and the saving of mankind, the core belief of the Christian faith.  In the Gospels, which were four of many Gospel like texts that were in circulation after the death of Jesus, we find four separate but very similar accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus’s ministry, which incidentally only reflects the last three years of his life and as well know includes not only his ministry, but also the story of his death and resurrection.

Although the date and authorship of these Gospels is disputed, it is general agreed by academics and Biblical scholars that these books were written sometime in the first century CE somewhere between 20 and 50 years after Jesus’s death, that there were in all likelihood not written by direct disciples of Jesus, and that at least three of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke which are collectively referred to sometimes and the “synoptic” Gospels, given their similarities in all likelihood share a common, earlier source that has been code named “Q” by modern Biblical historians.

Q as it turns out is believed to have a close relationship with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, a book of sayings attributed to Jesus which was discovered as part of the Gnostic archive in the Nag Hammadi Library of Gnostic texts, a text which consistent with most of the other Gnostic literature does not focus on the events of Jesus’s life, nor his resurrection, but more so on what he said and what he taught, hence the Gnostic (Greek gnosis or knowledge) classification.   The Gospel According to John also bears some classically Hellenic philosophic and Gnostic elements, showing particular strains of Philo Judaeus’s doctrine of Logos illustrating that this text at least stemmed from perhaps an alternate early Christian theological tradition, one which the Hellenic philosophical schools, or at least the teachings of Philo Judaeus and his successors Origen and Clement played a more predominant role.

The next heart of New Testament canon which was established in the early Church are the Books attributed to the apostle Paul.  St. Paul is one of the most prominent and influential figures in the history of Christianity and although not one of the twelve direct disciples of Jesus, he is considered by most academics and historians to be an apostle/student of Jesus proper and his efforts and accomplishments in founding the Christian faith, as reflected in the Pauline Epistles, or Epistles of Paul, which represent thirteen (or fourteen depending upon which version of the canon) books out of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament.  The Epistles of Paul give us great insight into not only how the early Church and Jesus’s message took root in the decades following his crucifixion, but also, along with the canonical Gospels, the general tenets of the faith (presumably) as taught by Jesus himself.  It is no wonder that these books were included as part of the official canon.

 

One of the first early Christian apologists was Justin Martyr, also known as Saint Justin (c. 100 – 165 CE), who was born in Judea is known for being one of the foremost interpreters of the Logos doctrine in early Christianity, the very same Logos that played such a prominent theological and philosophical role in the Old Testament exegesis by Philo Judaeus.  Of Justin’s extant work perhaps the most influential is the First Apology, a work which defends the reality and truth of the Christian faith and attempts to convince the Roman Emperor at the time, Antonius, to stop his persecution of early Christians.  His reliance on the principle of Logos as the principle by which God acts and creates in the manifest and material world, a pre-existing force from which Christ comes forth (see John 1), is his means of establishing the connection to, and ultimate synthesis of, Christ and the Greek philosophers which preceded him, concluding that some Greek philosophers, most notably Socrates and Plato, were in fact unknowing Christians, just as Philo Judaeus considered the early Greek philosophers to be a continuation and synthesis of the philosophical doctrines and teachings of Moses.

In his other extant work Dialogue with Trypho, Justin attempts to show in classically Greek dialogue form between himself as a recently converted Christian, and Trypho a Jewish rabbi, that Christianity is the new law for all mankind and that Jesus is in fact the Jewish messiah.  In the beginning of this work Justin relates his (failed) search for knowledge of God amongst the Stoics, Pythagoreans and Peripatetics, and although he found solace and insight in the teachings of Plato in his exposition of the one and true God head, he later became much more drawn to the teachings of the Jewish scripture in light of its consummation and manifestation in the life of Christ to whom he attributed the greatest source of truth and knowledge of God, and which of course was the source of his own conversion to Christianity despite his Greek philosophical education and exposure.

From his Dialogue with Trypho, we can see his identification of Jesus with the classic Hellenic philosophic Logos, consistent with the tradition that had been laid down by Philo Judaeus before him:

I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun).  For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [Logos] [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled.

The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, and Word [Logos], and Wisdom [sophia], and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following: If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and review them.  The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works.  From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth, and before He had made the deeps, before the springs of the waters had issued forth, before the mountains had been established.  Before all the hills He begets me.  God made the country, and the desert, and the highest inhabited places under the sky.  When He made ready the heavens, I was along with Him, and when He set up His throne on the winds: when He made the high clouds strong, and the springs of the deep safe, when He made the foundations of the earth, I was with Him arranging.  I was that in which He rejoiced; daily and at all times I delighted in His countenance, because He delighted in the finishing of the habitable world, and delighted in the sons of men..[6]

Here we see Justin looking not only to the scriptures themselves as the starting point from which true knowledge of God is to be ascertained, but also a metaphysical and theological equivalence is drawn between this “rational power” of God, i.e. Logos, which brings the world into existence, which establishes “order” from chaos as it were, and which emanates from, and yet at the same time is unified with the one true God of “scripture”.  This Logos is described by Justin, as was also interpreted by the orthodox Christian tradition in the doctrine of the Trinity, as equivalent to not only Wisdom (sophia), but also with Jesus himself as the Son of God, as well as God himself, differing in name only, not in principle.

 

In contrast to what we would consider the more orthodox interpretation of Jesus through the doctrine of Logos, and incorporating the Wisdom tradition of the Jews at the same time, we find another influential early Christian teacher who comes from the academic and intellectual milieu of Alexandria, namely Valentinus (c. 100 – 160 CE), typically categorized as one of the early “Gnostics”, a group of early Christian teachers and schools of thought which were much more esoteric and mystical in their interpretation and view of the meaning of Christ and his place in the cosmological world order than what came to be considered “orthodox” Christianity as viewed through the lens of the canonical Gospels that were incorporated into the New Testament.

Although born and educated in Northern Egypt and Alexandria, Valentinus spends his most productive years teaching in Rome and at one point, according to Tertullian, was considered for the position of the Bishop of Rome but started his own group after he was passed over.  Although none of Valentinus’s writings are extant, we know of the popularity of his school (Valentinianism) as well as many of its tenets and beliefs through some of the extant works of Clement of Alexandria, who writes that Valentinus was a follower of Theudas and that Theudas in turn was a follower of St. Paul, as well as from the early Christian theologian and apologist Irenaeus (c. early 2nd century – 202 CE) whose best known work, Against Heresies (c. 180), which defends “orthodox” Christianity against the various so-called heretic Gnostic schools that were prevalent at the time, with a special emphasis on the school started by Valentinus and the so-called Gospel of Truth which was attributed to him.

In the words of the Irenaeus, we find the following description of Valentinus and his teachings, making explicit reference to the Gospel of Truth which is one of the core so-called “Gnostic” treatises from antiquity:

But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist.  Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the apostles, and so no Gospel of theirs is free from blasphemy.  For if what they produce is the Gospel of Truth, and is different from those the apostles handed down to us, those who care to can learn how it can be show from the Scriptures themselves that [then] what is handed down from the apostles is not the Gospel of Truth.[7]

The copy of the Gospel of Truth, which Irenaeus refers to explicitly in his Against Heresies and is attributed to the Valentinian School, was discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library collection in the second half of the twentieth century and is believed to have been authored in the middle of the second century CE, in Greek.  In this Gospel, the life and tribulations of Jesus are not called out specifically as they are in the four canonical Gospels, and instead there is a focus on the creation of the known universe in Error (in personified form), and the delivery of Jesus (a messiah) to the earth to show us eternal life in order to (re)establish the wisdom of gnosis, or knowledge, which in itself grants salvation.

This salvation, this blessing of eternal rest, comes to those who have experienced gnosis, a transcendental state of awareness where the object of worship is merged entirely not only within the act of worship itself but also with worshipper as well.  The Gnostic tradition no doubt, for all intents and purposes reflects a deep esoteric and mystical teaching that was said to have come straight from the master (Jesus) himself – his “secret” teachings as it were.  This was the pinnacle state of Hellenic mystical schools, where the man once bound in the cave to perceive shadows, is released from his prison and shown the true divine realm which was illuminated by the Sun, of which the images in the Cave were but Shadows (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave reference).

The Gnostics were true mystics, but at the same time were faithful to the worship of Jesus in their own way, not in his physical form as having been born in the flesh and then crucified in the flesh by Pontius Pilot, but his message of immortality and the esoteric truths which he taught and personified.  To the Gnostics, Jesus of Nazareth was Logos personified, and in that sense he was not born, he was ever-present since the beginning of time.

This idea of the dichotomy of God the Father and Jesus the Son, through which is the only means to salvation in the Christian tradition of course, is theologically speaking the most radical notion that we find in the Gospels which presumably accurately reflects the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  In fact this dichotomy not only separates or distinguishes the New Testament theology from the Old Testament doctrines, the split between the Jewish and Christian faiths as it were, but ironically, as we are told directly in the Gospels themselves, is the very reason why Jesus is put to death in the first place.

But to the Gnostics, in contrast to the as of yet germinated orthodox interpretation of Jesus’s life, with a focus on the life of the flesh, it was what Jesus taught was inside of all of us, our birthright in fact, if we could just merge ourselves into knowledge itself we could be saved here and now.  This was the blessed Gnostic, the knower of God, whose teachings are ultimately that the kingdom of God is within us all and no Church is required to determine our salvation.  The Gnostic philosophy shared some Platonic features as well to be sure, for it was the existence of the One, Being itself, that the Gnostic could truly know.  Logos however was still the key, the connecting force and principle that bound the eternal cosmos to the individual Soul, in whose image it was created and who was born in the flesh to show us the way.

The metaphysics behind Gnosticism, despite being poorly documented given the mystical and esoteric nature of the movement and given that its teachers and doctrines were effectively obliterated from the earth by the early Church, or at the very least driven underground, nonetheless sit on, not surprisingly, the Hellenic philosophic tradition which preceded it which had incorporated mystic elements from the start.  But with Gnosticism, Plato’s embedded mysticism was drawn out and put at the forefront of the message.  To the Gnostics, gnosis itself was the goal, a state of being or realization that could in fact be attained and which Jesus himself represented and died for.  This was Plato’s Good, his Being, the Pythagorean Monad that could, upon constant contemplation and reflection, be fathomed and understood, and in so fathoming one could become co-existent with and merged into this One.  And in this state of gnosis, this embodiment of pure, unadulterated knowledge as it were, Plato’s Indefinite Dyad, the world of Becoming, could be perceived for what it truly was, a manifestation of pure Being.

To the Gnostics, Jesus was the personified Logos, his life and teachings illustrative of the potential for gnosis in all of us.  Plato’s Forms and Ideas, whose penultimate source and final end was the Good, represented the metaphysical framework within which the Sun of gnosis, which shone outside of the Cave of delusion, the world of Shadows.

That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ.  Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness.  He enlightened them and gave them a path.  And that path is the truth which he taught them.  For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him.  It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless.  He was nailed to a cross.  He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father.  He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it.  He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.[8]

This extant passage from the Gospel of Truth illustrates the esoteric nature of the Gnostic tradition which took a much more metaphorical and mystical approach to the comprehension of the Passion of Christ.  The Gnostic tradition embraced the persecution and crucifixion of Christ as a reflection of an element of imperfection that exists in the material universe, but through a proper understanding could be “overcome”.  Jesus was a manifestation of the eternal Logos in the flesh and in coming into being through the will of God the Father illustrated the truth of the Old Testament scripture but at the same time showed that gnosis as a state of being, in a Platonic sense, was just as real as Jesus himself.

Part of the Gnostic interpretation of Christ which was rejected by Christian orthodoxy was this view that he was the consort of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom who was reflected in the Wisdom tradition embedded in the Old Testament, e.g. in the Wisdom of Solomon or Book of Wisdom which in turn had come to be associated with Isis, the savior and goddess of knowledge from Egypt.[9]  It was within this Wisdom tradition, along with the vengeful God of the Jews that we find throughout the Old Testament in fact, that the Gnostic schools attempted to reconcile in a way that was distinct from, and therefore was ultimately rejected by, the orthodox Christian doctrine that came to be known as the Trinity.  The Gnostics looked upon Yahweh, who was equated with Plato’s Demiurge in some sense, as a great deity who although believed he had mastered and created the whole universe, but in fact there was another layer of heavens and gods above him, from which sophia and Christ as the eternal Logos emerge, and in their emergence rectify and balance the “erred” and flawed condition of the imperfect state of man.

Sophia and Christ as her consort is the mythological narrative upon which the explanation of the meaning of Christ and his crucifixion is framed.  Logos, the ordering principle of the universe which was an aspect of God himself, God the Father, is sent down to the world of man to bring about a new age of spiritual enlightenment and unify the old-world gods with the one and only god the Father which Jesus taught and embodied.  Their conception of Jesus as the “Word” in the flesh was as the theological bridge between world of men and the world of God which had been ripped asunder since mankind was cast out of the Garden.  Through his message, the truth of gnosis, which was explained within the context of this intermixed and synthesized mythological narrative, brings the spiritual world into balance as it were, bringing together the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, Platonic theology, along with ancient mythos as reflected in the tradition surrounding Isis, i.e. Sophia, in her goddess form.

 

Another of the Gnostic classified teachers and schools from this early “Christian” period, also from Alexandria, was Basilides.  Basilides flourished from approximately 117 to 138 CE and was a contemporary of Valentinus whose teachings he must have been exposed to at least some extent, and Justin Martyr whose life was spent further to the East somewhat outside of Alexandrian influence.  Basilides claimed to have inherited his teachings directly from the apostle Matthew and is known to have been one of the first commentators on the Gospels in a work entitled Exegetica.  Although this work is extant only in fragments and quotations, from detractors unfortunately, he is also known for having developed a cosmogony and world order that differed quite significantly, at least according to Irenaeus, from the majority of the other “Gnostic” traditions.  His teachings must have been popular however for it is said that his followers, known as Basilidians, persisted for at least two centuries after his death in Alexandria.

It’s worth quoting a passage from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which speaks to his life and teachings directly in the entry on Gnosticism, drawing primarily on Irenaeus’s Against Heresies as the primary source:

The Christian philosopher Basilides of Alexandria (fl. 132-135 CE) developed a cosmogony and cosmogony quite distinct from the sophia myth of classical Gnosticism, and also reinterpreted key Christian concepts by way of the popular Stoic philosophy of the era.  Basilides began his system with a “primal octet” consisting of the “unengendered parent” or Father; Intellect (nous); the “ordering principle” or “Word” (logos); “prudence” (phronêsis); Wisdom (sophia); Power (dunamis) (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.24.3, in Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures 1987) and “justice” and “peace” (Basilides, Fragment A, Layton).

Through the union of Wisdom and Power, a group of angelic rulers came into existence, and from these rulers a total of 365 heavens or aeons were generated (Irenaeus 1.24.3).  Each heaven had its own chief ruler (arkhôn), and numerous lesser angels.  The final heaven, which Basilides claimed is the realm of matter in which we all dwell, was said by him to be ruled by “the god of the Jews,” who favored the Jewish nation over all others, and so caused all manner of strife for the nations that came into contact with them—as well as for the Jewish people themselves.  This behavior caused the rulers of the other 364 heavens to oppose the god of the Jews, and to send a savior, Jesus Christ, from the highest realm of the Father, to rescue the human beings who are struggling under the yoke of this jealous god (Irenaeus 1.24.4).

Since the realm of matter is the sole provenance of this spiteful god, Basilides finds nothing of value in it, and states that “salvation belongs only to the soul; the body is by nature corruptible” (Irenaeus 1.24.5).  He even goes so far as to declare, contra Christian orthodoxy, that Christ’s death on the cross was only apparent, and did not actually occur “in the flesh” (Irenaeus 1.24.4)—this doctrine came to be called docetism.[10]

So in the teachings and doctrine of Basilides we see clear “Gnostic” elements in Jesus as the personified Logos being manifest to bridge the theological gap as it were between the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the benevolent God the Father as taught and personified by Jesus himself.  We also find this synthesis of all of the different metaphysical and theological elements which were characteristic of Hellenic philosophy integrated into a wholly unique and distinct cosmogony and world order as it were, another marked characteristic of the Gnostics.

Further insights into the Gnostic tradition can be gleaned from The Gospel of Thomas, one of the other great finds in the Nag Hammadi Library collection of scrolls that was not included in the Bible and contains what are thought to be quite early sayings and teachings of Christ.  Much of the material can actually be found in the canonical Gospels themselves pointing to either a common source of all of the material – the Four canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas – to perhaps an earlier origin of the Gospel of Thomas work, or to the existence of an even earlier source from which all the Gospels stem from, a source given the code name “Q” by modern scholars from which they theorize that both the Gospel of Thomas and the synoptic Gospels drew on heavily.  The latter view is probably the most dominant one amongst early Biblical scholars, that is the existence of an earlier source Q from which all these Gospels drew, but it is also believed that perhaps the Gospel of Thomas had ties with Syria where sentiment for Thomas was strong.

The Gospel of Thomas itself is composed of 114 sayings which are attributed to Jesus, almost half of which strongly resemble similar passages in the canonical Gospels, the others being of perhaps more Gnostic origin as they are not found in any of the canonical Gospels.  In all likelihood however, it does appear that the Gospel of Thomas, although categorized as Gnostic given its exclusion from standard biblical canon and its existence in the Nag Hammadi Library texts which at some level define what we now refer to as Gnostic literature, does represent a valid and very close connected tradition to the teachings of Jesus himself, and this Gospel, like the majority of the other Gnostic texts, does not emphasize the great prophet’s death and resurrection and its meaning for the salvation of mankind, but on the notion of the knowledge which he revealed to his followers, hidden in secret teachings and rituals which the masses could not understand or comprehend – a notion that clearly found few proponents in the early Christian Church Fathers.

Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father’s) kingdom.”  They said to him, “Then shall we enter the (Father’s) kingdom as babies?”  Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].[11]

The theme of the Gospel of Thomas runs from esoteric teachings of inner, hidden knowledge as evidenced from the quotation above, but reference to a variety of other parables some of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, speaking to the validity of the tradition represented by the Gospel of Thomas as well as the varying interpretations of the message of the historical Jesus that existed in the few centuries after his death.  In this gospel, Jesus’s divinity is not explicitly referred to, nor is the story of his death by crucifixion or resurrection from the dead, the theme of the Gospel is the “hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down”, as is stated in the introduction, the hidden and secret nature of the teaching lends itself to Gnostic classification, and clearly it circulated in Gnostic like esoteric and mystical communities as evidenced by it being found in the Nag Hammadi Library, which also contained an excerpt from Plato’s Republic, speaking to the continuity and synthesis of the Platonic teachings alongside the Gospels in the early Gnostic movement.

Another Gnostic classified text which is worth mentioning is the so-called the Apocryphon of John from the second century CE (it was known to Irenaeus and mentioned in his Against Heresies) which survives in four extant manuscripts in varying lengths, three of which were found in the Nag Hammadi Library, and narrates an alternative story of creation which can only be looked at as an attempt to the synthesize the Demiurge of Plato, the Yahweh of the Jews and the one true God the Father that Jesus speaks of in some sort of coherent story line.  The cosmological account describes the single unified and eternal principle of the Monad from which all creation comes forth and from which the Aeons emerge, Light (which is synonymous with Christ) and Mind being some of the basic constituents of the early creation and from which further Aeons and powers are created.  Eventually one of these Aeons, sophia, without consent of the Monad and without the aid of a male companion brings forth an entity named Yaltabaoth, who is the first of a series of fallible and less that purely divine heavenly creatures called Archons and from which our heavenly and earthly creation is formed and from which salvation, via Christ, is required in order that eternal life and balance to the universe be restored.

The Pistis Sophia, a Gnostic text of somewhat later origin from maybe the third or fourth century CE, relates the gnostic teachings of Jesus to his disciples after he is resurrected from the dead, alluding to period of 11 years that he taught his disciples after his death by crucifixion.  In this text Sophia also plays a prominent role and is associated as the consort of Christ, the revealer of mysteries, the Heavenly Mother, the Psyche of the world and even as the female aspect of Logos.  The Pistis Sophia describes the highest realm of the light, the nature and subsistence of souls after death, and the way of salvation through initiation into the mysteries of Christ.  This book quotes from Psalms, from prophets of the Old Testament, as well as from some of the canonical Gospels and despite its Gnostic bent retains some of the core Christian theological features that survived into orthodox Christianity, with an altogether esoteric and mystery cultish bent consistent with the Gnostic sects and schools of thought from which it must have emerged.

 

What we can clearly say about Gnosticism in general, despite the differences among the various so-called “Gnostic” schools themselves is that they shared an esoteric view of the interpretation of the teachings of Christ and that they developed various cosmogonies which although stemmed from the spherical notion of the heavens which has become the predominant astronomical picture of the times (think Ptolemy) but they looked upon these spheres not just as an astronomical system but also as a system for the ascent of the soul, an ascent that in their view Jesus had outlined for them in his “hidden” teachings and one which, according the some astrological teachings reflected the “descent” of the soul into this world.

Interestingly, most of the Gnostic teachers claimed close lineage to the Apostles themselves – Valentinus to St. Paul and Basilides to Matthew for example and both these early Gnostic teachers were from Alexandria of course, the home and heart of Hellenic philosophy in the first few centuries after Christ and where many of the most influential of the early Christian Church Fathers were schooled and taught as well.  Despite their differences however, their doctrines focused less on the physical life and death of Christ but the eternal message that lied within his secret teachings and the mystical and esoteric meanings that were to be gleaned from his teachings from the vantage point of the “ascent of the soul”, i.e. gnosis.

The Gnostic tradition was a mystic one no doubt, one that had many heads and many variations in practice, but they were at the least united on Christ as the consort of sophia, and that it was the flawed Demiurge (the Old Testament God) who needed to be bailed out of his self-created predicament by Christ the savior.  So while their worship of Jesus as the messiah was consistent, as well as their view of him as the personified Logos of God, there were clearly different interpretations of the underlying world order and mythos within which his teachings were interpreted throughout the Gnostic landscape, and they also held different views than what came to be understood as the orthodox Christian position with respect to the reality and meaning of the so-called “Passion” of Christ.

To the Gnostics, and even to Clement of Alexandria (among others such as Irenaeus most notably) who spoke against them, it was Jesus who was the new song for the new age.  They just disagreed on the song itself, but their tune was not altogether different.  The message spoke consistently of the true existence of eternal life, and Christ’s role in teaching, illustrating and at some level “granting” it to all who looked to him as the carrier of the true message of salvation for the “new age”, even if they each presented a somewhat different picture as to how Christ fit into the eternal celestial and cosmological structure that underpinned creation itself.

Although it’s hard to sum up and categorize the position of the various Gnostic sects which from a certain vantage point sat in opposition to the more orthodox interpretations of Christian theology as espoused in the Epistles of Paul and the canonical Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, it is clear that this tradition represented some sort of threat to the growing power of the Christian authority which chose to focus less on his “mystery” and “secret doctrine” and more on his birth, teachings and resurrection as relayed in the canonical Gospels, and the reliance on his words as captured therein that spoke to Christ the savior as being the only gateway to heaven.

According to the Gnostics, this world, the material cosmos, is the result of a primordial error on the part of a supra-cosmic, supremely divine being, usually called sophia (Wisdom) or simply the Logos.  This being is described as the final emanation of a divine hierarchy, called the Plêrôma or “Fullness,” at the head of which resides the supreme God, the One beyond Being.  The error of sophia, which is usually identified as a reckless desire to know the transcendent God, leads to the hypostatization of her desire in the form of a semi-divine and essentially ignorant creature known as the Demiurge (Greek: dêmiourgos, “craftsman”), or Ialdabaoth [Yaltabaoth], who is responsible for the formation of the material cosmos.  This act of craftsmanship is actually an imitation of the realm of the Pleroma, but the Demiurge is ignorant of this, and hubristically declares himself the only existing God.  At this point, the Gnostic revisionary critique of the Hebrew Scriptures begins, as well as the general rejection of this world as a product of error and ignorance, and the positing of a higher world, to which the human soul will eventually return.  However, when all is said and done, one finds that the error of sophia and the begetting of the inferior cosmos are occurrences that follow a certain law of necessity, and that the so-called “dualism” of the divine and the earthly is really a reflection and expression of the defining tension that constitutes the being of humanity—the human being.[12]

Although it’s easy to understand why the early Church rejected these “Gnostic” teachings as heresy, one wonders how much of the teachings – as little as we know of them – were true in the sense that they reflect what Jesus actually believed and taught to his inner circle.  What also remains a mystery is what schools of thought if any, from a philosophical or even mystical perspective, influenced Jesus himself.  Yes he spoke in parables and yes he – at least in the last few years of his life – lived and taught in Palestine and of course he was a Jew.  What can be said is that he was no doubt exposed to Jewish orthodoxy given his own cultural heritage, even if he ultimately rejected it, and was in all likelihood exposed to some of the mystery cult traditions that were prevalent in Palestine at the time, the Chaldean Oracles for example, which helped him see no doubt the unity of existence and the unity of the individual with the cosmos, but of course it does not leave out the possibility that he was simply divinely illuminated himself without any outside assistance or prodding – an unlikely scenario but a possibility nonetheless.

Looked at in this way, it is clear why the orthodox Christian tradition had to fully reject the Gnostic interpretation and view of Jesus as it represented not just a threat to the power of the Church itself (for if Christians didn’t need the Church then upon what authority would they stand?), but a completely different interpretation and underlying mythos for the explanation of reality.  This essentially was the great divide between the orthodox interpretations of Christ and Gnosticism.

Leaving the mystical bent of the Gnostic tradition aside, which in and of itself threatened the emerging authoritarian structure of the Church, there was still a major theological divergence from a cosmological and causality perspective, that separated the two opposing perspectives on the meaning of the Life and Death of Christ – the one orthodox view that his life, in its divine character, its extraordinary and miraculous beyond belief story line, was in itself his message and his life should be worshipped, and sanctified and celebrated, and the other Gnostic view looked more upon his life not as existing actually but took more of an esoteric and mystical vantage point, where the Christ was not actually born and did not die but in fact lived eternally as a manifestation of the Logos and which bridged the Jewish conception of God and the conception of God as put forth by Jewish as reconcilable in a different light than (what became) the standard orthodox view.

The standard view became, and in many respects was forced to become, the doctrine of the Trinity which spoke of Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit who were of one, unqualified substance (homoousios) which moved the waters at the beginning of time itself (Genesis), and were undivided and ontologically equivalent and yet at the same time different manifestations of the great unified force of the undivided One, providing the theological explanation to the various passages in the (orthodox) Bible which were seemingly contradictory and retaining the unity of God in no uncertain terms.

 

 


[1] See the Chapter in this work on the Hellenization of Judaism for details on this synthesis of Hellenic philosophy and Old Testament exegesis, in particular by Philo Judaeus, as well as the associated “Wisdom” literature, i.e. sophia, which also become an integral part of the early Jewish theo-philosophical tradition.

[2] In particular in its manifestation as reflected in the teachings and writing of Plotinus (204 – 70 CE) – the One, the Intellect and the Soul as a metaphysical triumvirate of sorts, i.e. a theo-philosophical trinity.  For more on the Neo-Platonic influence on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in particular, see Tuggy, Dale, “History of the Trinitarian Doctrines” (Supplement to Trinity), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/trinity-history.html – pgs. 75-76.

[3] See the Chapter in this work on Muḥammad, the Qurʾān and Aristotle for a detailed look at the continuity of Greek, i.e. Hellenic, philosophical thought and inquiry by the Arabic philosophical tradition, i.e. the falṣafa.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_versions_of_the_Nicene_Creed.

[5] Here we use Christian Church Fathers in the most broad sense of the term to denote those early theologians and scholars, philosophers for the most part, whose work in one way or another influenced the development of early Christianity, whether or not they are considered to be Church Fathers by the Church itself.  Origen of Alexandria is one such example, who like Philo Judaeus, exerted profound influence on the early Church from a theological and philosophical standpoint, even if again, they were or are not recognized by the Church itself as a so-called “Father of the Church” for whatever reason.

[6] Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho.  Chapter entitled Wisdom is Begotten of the Father, as Fire from Fire.  Excerpt from http://biblehub.com/library/justin/dialogue_of_justin_philosopher_and_martyr_with_trypho/chapter_lxiwisdom_is_begotten_of.htm

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.9.  Quotation from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Truth.

[8] Gospel of Truth, translation by Robert M. Grant.  From http://gnosis.org/naghamm/got.html.

[9] See Isis and sophia in the Book of Wisdom by John S. Kloppenborg from Harvard Theological Review for a detailed look at the parallels of the personified Wisdom of the Jewish tradition, Christ and the characteristics of Isis as the savior of Egyptian mythos.  Harvard Theological Review / Volume 75 / Issue 01 / January 1982, pp 57 – 84 DOI: 10.1017/S0017816000018216, Published online: 10 June 2011.

[10] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Gnosticismhttp://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic/

[11]Gospel of Thomas, verse 22.  Translation by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, from http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html.

[12] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Gnosticismhttp://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic/



Categories: Ancient Civilization, Christianity, Essays

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